Ever since Ray got out of the hospital after an overnight stay to set his arm and keep an eye on his concussion, Fraser had been sticking close by him. Meg noticed and was not surprised. They still spent time together, but she sensed an evasiveness and she somehow knew not to try inviting him to stay overnight again. He was in retreat, protecting himself. He was just as warm and loving when they were together, but out of some instinct he was slowing down their rapid rush toward a full-blown relationship.
Meg understood why. They had been moving very fast. He was still carrying the burden of thinking that he had to choose between her and the uniform. She'd tried to tell him over dinner one night that it wasn't true, that she could be the one to choose. But his face had settled into the mask as he said he wouldn't, couldn't be with her and be responsible for her abandoning the career she loved. And the next thing she knew he was talking about some caribou on the side of a mountain, whatever that was all about. So that was that- for now she wasn't talking about it. Not until she had something definite to tell him.
Not that she was a saint, not that she didn't feel hurt and betrayed by the way he was guarding himself. Not that she didn't end up going home after that and yelling at her bedroom mirror all the things she'd bitten her tongue not to say to him, not to say and ruin everything.
"Why won't he listen? I'm trying. I'm trying my best. What is it? Aren't I worth it? Why the hell won't he let me in? God, why does it have to be so hard? Why can't it be fair?"
She wished her career hadn't been so all-consuming. Along the way she'd lost touch with most of her old friends. They were all married or busy with lives of their own. There was really no-one whose shoulder she could cry on.
She did have things in motion. Welsh might not be the sort of person on whose shoulder one could bawl, but he was the sort of man who had contacts, and who was more than happy to pull strings for her when she asked about law enforcement related opportunities in Chicago. At first he thought she was asking for Fraser's sake. But when he understood, he was enthusiastic about making things right for her. He was also swift to act, calling in favors and pulling strings. The way he saw it, her little plan would get his department back in order. In spite of Fraser's unofficial status and penchant for finding trouble where others would not, things had just been going better ever since he had started hanging around. He was an asset that Welsh sorely missed, though he'd be sure never to let anyone know that.
A week after Ray got out of hospital he was allowed back on desk duty. He called Fraser and badgered him relentlessly.
"Why don't you stop by the station? I'm bored. You wouldn't be on duty. I mean, my annoying sister can hang around, what's stopping you? You wouldn't leave me here all alone with all this paperwork, would you?"
Fraser acquiesced readily enough. He missed the buzz of the station, he missed the easy companionship of his partner, that wasn't fraught with the romantic tension of his time spent with Meg, and it wasn't like he had a lot to do with his time. He was still half-heartedly looking through the job ads in the mornings, and he was still spending the evenings with Meg or Ray, or both of them, but that left a long stretch of day with not a lot to fill it. He'd never experienced aimlessness like that and it wasn't really to his taste. It gave him way too much time to worry about things not working out.
Fraser received a warm welcome from everyone down at the 27th. He was touched by how much he seemed to have been missed, and happy to be able to say that he was very nearly fully recovered from the gunshot wound that had been partly responsible for keeping him out of action. Before he settled at Ray's desk, Welsh pulled him aside to reiterate that he did not hold the Mountie responsible for Ray's rash actions that lead to Ray's concussion and broken arm. Fraser still wasn't convinced, but it was good for him to be reminded that there were other perspectives on his overwhelming feelings of responsibility.
Ray and Fraser sat chatting while Ray supposedly filled in paperwork. Fraser's phone rang. He was still getting used to carrying it around and being in contact at any time.
"Excuse me, Ray." he said. He answered the phone, "Hello, Benton Fraser speaking," even though of course it was Meg and he didn't have to be so formal.
"Sweetheart! I've got some great news I want to celebrate." Meg said. "Will you meet me for dinner tonight? The restaurant we had our first date at? Wear something nice?" she was talking very fast.
"Um. Yes, of course. What time?" Fraser asked.
"Eight o'clock. See you there. Miss you." Meg said.
Fraser smiled. That was how she always signed off from their phone calls, but there was so much tenderness in the word.
"I miss you too. I'll see you tonight."
"Date night?" Ray asked with a teasing grin.
"Yes, she said she had some good news. I wonder what it could be?" Fraser speculated.
Just then, Ray's phone rang. Fraser heard Ray's side of the conversation.
"Hey- oh! Okay. Yes, sure, I'll be there. Great!" He was smiling as he hung up.
"Who was that?" Fraser asked.
"Dry cleaner." Ray said. Fraser tilted his head to one side. Hmm. But he left it alone, if Ray wanted to be mysterious, he could be mysterious. Diefenbaker gave Ray a curious look. That wasn't the dry-cleaner's voice on the phone.
Fraser felt much more confident dressing for his second attempt at a date at this restaurant. Meg had shown him by now that she wasn't embarrassed by him, in fact, that she seemed to appreciate his down to earth qualities, as long as he wasn't self-conscious about it. He spent time making sure his hair was perfectly combed and his shave as close as he could get it. He didn't think he looked terribly impressive in the suit, but so far she didn't seem to be complaining about being stuck with a scrawny guy like him.
Things went more smoothly. The sommelier knew immediately that Meg would be looking at the wine list, Fraser had eyes only for her and didn't have a chance to be nervous. She was looking beautiful. She'd done her hair in a simple style that lifted it off her face and framed her eyes. But more than that, she seemed to have an animation and vitality that he hadn't seen before. She seemed wholeheartedly happy.
"So, you said you had some news?" Fraser asked after they had started eating.
"Mmm, yes." Meg said. Her eyes sparkled. "I have something to show you."
She reached down to her purse and pulled out an envelope. She unfolded the letter inside it and slid it across the table.
"Dear Margaret," the letter began, "we are delighted to offer you the position of Director of Law Enforcement Relations..."
Fraser skimmed over the rest of the letter, his mouth hanging open in surprise. It was an offer letter for a position at a not-for-profit organization.
Meg was openly grinning. "It's amazing. I asked Lieutenant Welsh to spread the word around that I was in the market for a new challenge and he found these people almost immediately. They've been looking for someone with my level of experience, and not having a lot of luck. It's a non-Government organization run by women, to help stamp out the trade in people smuggling.
"You know, a lot of desperate people, especially women and young girls, end up here and in Canada on false pretenses in virtual slavery just because they were trying to get out of poverty or a war zone. This group helps the women gain legal status and also goes after the people doing the smuggling. They want me to work directly with law enforcement agencies to help get justice for the victims. It's an incredible opportunity. I'd be a fool not to take it."
"You're leaving the RCMP?"
"I'm putting in my resignation tomorrow."
"And you're happy about it?"
"I couldn't be happier. They are doing such good work, Ben. And even though the salary is lower, it'd be a step up the career ladder for me. It would open doors for my future. And I never would have thought to look for it if we didn't need to find a solution to our problem."
"You're sure about this?" Fraser asked.
"I'm sure. Ben, sweetheart, I didn't join the Mounties so I could sit behind a desk and reprimand people for wearing the wrong uniform. You reminded me of that. Uncomfortably, at times. You stirred up all the ideals I lost along the way, all the dreams I had of changing the world. Well, I can do it. I can have a career that has more meaning than rising through the ranks just because it's expected of me, seeking promotion for no reason other than because that's how the game is played.
"You make me want to be a better person." she was leaning in close to him now. "You make me believe again all the things I thought I was naïve to believe in. You have this effect on people. I don't think you see it, because you give us credit already for being better than we are and that's something to live up to."
She grasped his hand, her dinner forgotten as they leaned across the table. "Benton Fraser, I love you."
Fraser's heart caught in his throat. She really was amazing. She was throwing away the career she'd built in the RCMP and she had the vision to turn that into something wonderful, something bigger than both of them.
"I love you, too." he said. "I don't want you to change because of me. I love you for who you are. I think the difference may be that I see all those things you say I inspire in you. They're already there, an integral part of who you are. I want to see you happy. If this job will make you happy, then I'm glad you took the chance on it."
He sighed slightly, shifting his hand in hers. "I'm just sorry that I couldn't see a way to solve the problem myself." He was slightly ashamed. The thought of leaving the RCMP had paralyzed him, whereas it had galvanized her to find something even better to move on to.
Meg frowned with impatience. She laced her fingers through his, keeping that line of contact open. Touch seemed to be so vital to communicating with him.
"You don't always have to be the hero." she said briskly. "You're not responsible for fixing every problem. We're together now. I should have seen from the start that the RCMP isn't just what you do, it's part of who you are. It wasn't fair to let you carry all the burden of making things work smoothly between us, and don't you ever dare feel guilty because for once I was the one who took action. Are we an equal partnership, or not?"
He smiled at this. That was his Meg, full of piss and vinegar. And she was right. He owed it to her to let her make the grand gestures sometimes. Although as far as he was concerned, that was never going to involve putting herself in danger to protect him. Not if he could help it.
"You're right. I can hardly believe this, though. Everything is -"
"I told you, every thing is going to be all right. And I meant it."
Meg leaned down one more time to reach for a bag at her feet. She slid the small shopping bag across the table to him.
"And just so you don't have to miss seeing me wear red... I'm not likely to forget how hot and bothered the dress uniform made you on the train."
Fraser peeked inside the bag. There was something lacy and silky and most definitely scarlet in there.
"Oh-" was all he managed to say, looking spectacularly flustered, before she took the bag back with a grin.
Ray walked into the restaurant and saw Fraser and Thatcher leaning across the table, hands clasped, lost in each other's eyes. It was clearly capital-L love, if he'd ever seen it. He felt awkward about interrupting them. But then Fraser looked up and his face broke into a wide smile at seeing Ray. Ray smiled back.
"Ray, what are you doing here? Join us?"
Meg said, "I invited him. I thought you'd want to share the good news."
Fraser's heart was so full. She did that? It was a special night for them, she'd removed the major obstacle to them being together, and yet she had the generosity to share even that with his partner, his best friend. It was as clear as possible that she was saying he'd never have to choose between them.
The waiter brought over an extra chair and cleared away Meg and Ben's almost untouched plates.
"I'll bring dessert menus." he said.
"Ray, Meg has the most wonderful news." Fraser said.
Meg shared the news of the job offer. Ray understood at once. This meant that Fraser was going to be able to stay in the force, and presumably still work as his partner. He couldn't help but feel relief. He hadn't wanted to burden Fraser with extra worry but he really hadn't been at all happy to be working without him.
"Welsh will be pleased," he said, not admitting openly that he was thrilled, although his face showed it, "We need you back, Benny, there's some kind of gang war breaking out between rival strip club owners and I don't know what else. We could really use your help."
Fraser glowed at the praise. It was good to be wanted.
Over coffee and dessert they talked about Meg's job offer, and how it meant she would still be working closely with many of her former colleagues.
"They were very impressed with my close ties to the RCMP of course," Meg said, and then with a sly smile, "and, Detective, with the Chicago PD."
Ray chuckled. "Not so bad having your subordinate hang out with some Chicago cop after all, then." he said.
"No, I should say not."
Meg's lease ran out around three months after she'd taken her new job. Which was a good thing, because there was no way she could afford to keep living there on her new salary. It felt good to be doing good, but the monetary rewards definitely weren't in line with the plans she'd always had for her future. It was an adjustment.
Ben went apartment hunting with her every night after work for a week. He could see that she was struggling to come to terms with the places she could afford. They were older, more run down, smaller, in bad neighborhoods. They were nothing like as shabby as his slum apartment, but still, they were definitely beneath her expectations. He tried to keep her spirits up, but he could see it was getting her down.
On Thursday he did some research of his own, and on Friday night, still in his red uniform, he dragged her to a relatively nice, quiet, middle class neighborhood to see an apartment he'd found. She was impressed that the building it was in was kept beautifully clean with well maintained plants around the front. The security system worked well, and inside, the common areas had neat, modern furniture, and, which seemed to impress Ben, there was only a minor extra cleaning charge for pets.
The apartment itself was definitely still older and smaller than the one she'd been living in. But it was cosy and homely, too. The walls were painted in warm tones, and had obviously been painted recently, and with care. The carpet was thick and luxurious, and importantly, clean. Meg could see most of her furniture fitting in nicely.
She spoke with the agent about the details of the lease. Her hopes sank at the monthly rent. It was still outside her budget, unless she wanted to eat nothing but beans and rice and stop putting money into savings.
"Can I have a moment?" she asked. The agent stepped outside and left her with Ben.
"It's beautiful, but I just can't afford it." she said. "I wish I could, and I do appreciate you finding it. Maybe we'll find something else like it."
Fraser took a deep breath. He'd been thinking about this all week and he thought he had the nerve to do it now.
"You could afford it- we could afford it- on two salaries." he said.
"Are you suggesting that we live in sin?" Meg teased. She wasn't actually averse to the idea.
Ah. The deer in the headlights look. Still so easy to conjure.
"Well, that is, we already - " Fraser stammered, "I mean, think of the savings on gas alone- we sleep together more or less every night anyway - but I didn't mean - if it bothers you- we could always get married."
It was Meg's turn to look stunned.
Ben realized what he had blurted out. He hadn't meant to ask her that way- or to ask her yet at all. There was still a lot of tension in their relationship, over where it was going, what they both wanted from the future. There were still times when she lost her temper too readily at him, there were times when he closed down emotionally when she needed him to be open. He had told her about Victoria and sought absolution that was not hers to give, she was still carrying her guilt at the way she'd treated him in the past, even though he'd long forgiven it. Those things were not going to vanish with the wave of a wand. But he knew he loved her and he knew damn well that regardless of anything else, he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
"Benton Fraser, did you just propose to me?"
Do or die. Back off and make a joke, or -
He dropped to one knee and took her hand. He could at least do it right the second time. Meg gasped, her other hand flying up to cover her open mouth. He was. He was proposing to her!
"I didn't mean to say it like that. " Ben said. "I would have liked it to be perfect for you. But I cannot imagine my life without you in it. I can't remember how I got by before you were mine. I know that I don't have a lot of worldly goods to offer, but I think that we make a good team. I think our strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Meg, will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?"
It sounded old fashioned and corny to him. Worldly goods? Where on earth had that come from? He was sure she'd think he was crazy now. But there was no other way of asking that would do.
Meg's stood stunned for a moment. She found herself feeling decidedly stupid. Of course the answer was yes. The answer was yes from the moment she'd realized she was in love with him. But it was so soon, so unexpected. Modern couples dragged their courtship on through years of living together, and here he was behaving as if they were about to run off to the ends of the earth together and had to get it all settled quickly. She hesitated for a moment, looking into his eyes. What was she waiting for? A sign from above? Oh, it was going to be work, but when had she been afraid of work?
"Yes." she said, her voice a shocked whisper. "Yes, I will. Oh, Ben, yes."
Author's Note: All done. If I'm ever in a better mood, there may have to be a totally sappy wedding story. With crime, of course. Always with the crime.